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Church Commissioners

Volume 501: debated on Thursday 26 November 2009

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Parish Priests

I expect the numbers of retirements of parish priests between now and 2015 to be as follows: 224 in 2010, 304 in 2011, 336 in 2012, 310 in 2013, 313 in 2014, and 278 in 2015.

Perhaps that answer reflects the £350 million pension board deficit in the priests’ retirement fund and the consequent need to raise the retirement age to 68. Can my hon. Friend say whether, taking into account deaths and future retirements, the overall trend is for a falling number of stipendiary priests and whether that is balanced out by an increase in the number of non-stipendiaries?

As my hon. Friend will know, as with every other final salary pension scheme the cost of the clergy pension scheme has increased significantly over the past decade because of increased life expectancy, lower investment returns and increased regulation. The Church is committed, however, to ensuring that its clergy receive an adequate income in retirement.

On the second part of my hon. Friend’s question, it is a fact that deaths and retirements mean that the overall number of stipendiary priests has been falling. However, I remind the House of two things: first, the Church is immensely well served by thousands of non-stipendiary clergy; and secondly, it is doing some very good work with vocational events to help people, especially younger people, to explore their calling.

Please can the hon. Gentleman tell us how many professional statisticians are employed by the Church of England at Church House and by the Church Commissioners?

I am certainly aware of one statistician who gives me excellent advice. If there are others within the recesses of Church House, I will be happy to search them out and give the hon. Gentleman a written response.

As so many parishes, including my own, are dependent on retired clergy for keeping their services going, is there not a lot to be said for raising the retirement limit and allowing clergy to serve in full post until they are 75?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point, to which at this time I have no answer. However, it is certainly a problem that the Church would like to consider, because we need to deal with it. His suggestion is welcome and I will check it out for him.

Stipendiary Priests

3. What the average number of churches is in a rural parish which is in the charge of a stipendiary priest. (301667)

We do not keep records of which parishes are rural and which are not. However, I know from the latest edition of “Church Statistics”—the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) will be very aware of this—that there are, on average, 2.1 churches to a benefice, with figures ranging from 1.3 churches per benefice in Portsmouth diocese to 3.6 churches per benefice in Hereford diocese.

Taking that with the hon. Gentleman’s answer to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), it appears that more parishes are going to be covered by the same stipendiary priests. I know that the Second Church Estates Commissioner has visited Teesdale, where I was brought up, and parishes in North Yorkshire are very similar. Parish priests are extremely hard pressed. What can he do to make their lives a little easier in getting around to administer to parishes?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding us of our last exchange, when I mentioned my visit to Teesdale churches. She asks about stipendiary priests, but I should point out that the Church is also well served by many thousands of others, including non-stipendiary ministers, chaplains and retired clergy. Taking that into account, at the end of 2007 more than 20,000 ministers were licensed by Church of England dioceses—that is one minister for every 2,500 people in England. Is not that a remarkable fact, Mr. Speaker?

I thank my hon. Friend for the information regarding stipendiary and non-stipendiary priests. Does he have a precise figure for how many non-stipendiary priests there are in the Church of England—and may I pay tribute to them? My second late husband, John Hammersley, spent his last four years of working as a Church of England vicar in the Oxford diocese training and preparing for ordination non-stipendiary priests, and he was terribly impressed by their abilities.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to the good work that the non-stipendiaries do and how much that work is appreciated in the Church. In response also to the earlier question from the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), the clergy work load is always under review and it is part of the bishops’ pastoral care for the clergy. My hon. Friend’s point is very well made.

Christian Minorities Abroad

4. Whether the Church of England allocates funding for the purposes of assisting persecuted Christian minorities abroad. (301668)

Supporting persecuted groups, whether Christian or not, is an integral part of the Church’s work at all levels. Centrally, funds are not separately allocated for that work, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the officers and advisers of the Archbishops Council, together with bishops, dioceses and the officers of the archbishops, provide substantial and continuing support to persecuted Christians abroad.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that positive answer. I know that my own Bishop of Croydon spoke at the international interfaith conference in Kazakhstan a year ago on this matter. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that it is appropriate for the Church to do its very best to draw the attention of the media and Her Majesty’s Government to the persecution of Christians, for example in northern Iraq and in Orissa?

The hon. Gentleman is certainly right about the work that the Church does, which does not get adequate media attention in the age of the 24-hour media, and he refers to his own bishop’s visit. There have recently been killings of Christians in Gojra and tensions in Nigeria, and they are matters of great concern to the Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury has led the response, corresponding with the Pakistani Church and Government, and a delegation led by the Bishop of Bradford will meet Ministers and visit Gojra next month. The idea that we ought to draw the media’s attention to the matter more is positive.

In the past I have travelled to Pakistan and Nigeria with that excellent organisation, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and I must tell my hon. Friend how important Christians abroad view the Anglican Church in this country as being and how much they look to it for leadership. Anything that can be done to increase the budget and our representation in those countries to ensure that they are listened to is vital.

My hon. Friend again draws the attention of the House and the wider world to the excellent work that the Church does in difficult circumstances. He mentions funding, and although the Church Commissioners do not fund that particular work, the Church none the less applies significant resources to it through various budgets, including the expenses budgets of its officers, bishops and archbishops. Clearly, such work takes much time and involves significant travel and other costs, as he is aware, but it is vital work and it is vital that the House is aware of it.